It all started with the photograph, I typed.
My cousin, Mike, punched me lightly in the arm.
I swung my chair around and glared at him.
“That’s not how it started, Sean,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It started with Mrs. Kohling and those jars.”
I turned back to the computer and typed, It all started with Mrs. Kohling and those jars.
“Eggstatic.” He sighed and sat down on the edge of my bed. He ran a hand through his reddish-brown hair. “I just figure that if you’re going to write down everything we’ve been through, you should get it right. And the picture came later. We wouldn’t have even got to the picture if it wasn’t for the jars.”
He was right. He usually is. But I don’t like telling him that. He already thinks he’s smarter than me just because he’s a week older.
“Feel free to do the telling, if you want,” I said. I lifted my fingers off the keyboard and leaned back in my chair.
“You spell better.”
“Eggzactly,” I said. “And if anyone’s ever going to read this, it would be nice if all the words actually, you know, made sense.”
“Whatever. Just type.” He started counting the freckles on the back of his hands. It was what he did whenever he was trying to act like he couldn’t care less.
Okay. So the thing is, I guess it really did start when Mrs. Kohling came into my dad’s jewelry store. But it isn’t a jewelry store like you’d see at a mall or in a city somewhere. We live out in the woods by a lake, and the store is in the front of a small building connected to our house and my dad’s jewelry store. Outside, it looks a lot like a log cabin, because that’s pretty much exactly what it is. Inside the store, the floor is all bare wood, so Dad can get around easily in his wheelchair, with rows of low glass cabinets where he displays all of the rings, bracelets, necklaces, and other things he makes.
My dad is an artist who makes jewelry using the freshwater pearls that we grow in a small section of the lake, which is pretty much in our back yard. As far as we know, it’s the only freshwater pearl farm in the country. At least that’s what we say on the billboard planted out on Route 51.
My mom is the one who goes out on the lake in a small boat to tend the mussels that make the pearls, and my dad designs all of the settings that turn those pearls into jewelry that people want to wear. The pearl farm used to be his father’s business, and we moved back here to Tennessee to help him run it when he got sick. After he died, which happened just after the accident that put my dad in a wheelchair, we added the jewelry store to help bring in some more money. It was the accident that also led my mom’s sister and her son — my Aunt Caitlyn and my cousin Mike — to move next door to help out. Apparently, you can never have too many helping hands. Well. . . maybe you can.
But like I said: We’re stuck way out in the woods. The only people that drive down our road now are either coming to buy jewelry, take boat tours to see the pearl-making mussels, or go out fishing in one of the boats we rent. Or they’re lost. Even the school bus doesn’t come this far out of town. But we won’t have to think about school for two months yet. Which is fine. The rumor is the sixth grade teacher is some kind of monster.
Anyway, on the morning when Mrs. Kohling showed up, it was a warm June day and Mike and I were taking turns jumping off the dock behind my house, diving and doing cannonballs into the murky water to scare off the bluegills and sunfish. I love having a lake to swim in whenever I want, but all of those little fish nibbling my bare legs really freaks me out.
I was just getting ready to run and jump again when Mom stuck her head out the back door and called us inside. “The radio says a thunderstorm is on the way,” she said. “And I’m about to be puttin’ yer lunch on the table.”
Mike and I looked at each other.
“Don’t even be thinkin’ about it,” she said. I knew she was really serious when her full Irish accent came out. “Now.”
We shook off droplets of water like my cat, Sneakerton, who is a surprisingly good swimmer, and ran across the undulating dock and into the grass leading up to my house. Mom met us at the door with two beach towels and told us to dry off before we walked through the store, which is the only way to get to my room in the building — our home — next door. It’s not a great set-up for a house — two separate buildings connected by a covered passageway and ramps — but it makes it a lot easier for Dad to move around now. You can adjust to things when you have to.
Mike and I were trying to walk quietly through the store when we heard Mrs. Kohling’s ancient voice call our names.
“Sean and Michael!” she said, smiling. She was very small and very thin, with a tower of gray-white hair piled high on her head. It made her look about a foot taller than she really was. Mike used to say she looked like a Q-tip. Then he got to know her and he realized she was pretty cool for a really old person. I think she came to the shop every week, trying to get my dad to buy some old antique she’d dug up somewhere. I don’t think she knows that he makes the jewelry himself and doesn’t sell antiques. I do know my dad’s never told her. He says it’s always nice to have visitors in the store and he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings.
“How nice to see you two today!” she said. “But shouldn’t you boys be in school?”
“We’re on summer vacation, Mrs. Kohling,” I said politely, trying to push Mike ahead of me. Mrs. Kohling could keep you talking for hours if you weren’t careful.
“Sean,” Dad called out, “you should come over here and see what Mrs. Kohling brought us today.”
Should I really, Dad? I wanted to say. But there was something different about his voice. This time, he sounded genuinely interested in whatever it was she had pulled out of her wrinkled brown-paper bag.
We walked up beside my dad’s wheelchair. People say I get my height from my dad, but I can’t really picture him standing tall. I can’t remember when he wasn’t in a wheelchair.
Mike and I looked down at Mrs. Kohling’s treasure.
“Whoa,” Mike said, his eyes wide.
I nodded. This time, it really was whoa.
My dad was holding a delicate silver tray that held three small glass jars. Each jar was filled to the top with a different colored liquid: one was deep gold, the next was dark red, and the last liquid looked like blue Kool-Aid.
“Is that blood?” Mike asked, pointing to the middle bottle.
“I certainly hope not!” Mrs. Kohling said, gasping. “Frankly, I don’t know what’s in the bottles. I found them deep in an old trunk that belonged to my great-grandmother. She had two identical sets, so I decided I could part with one of them. I thought the metal work on the top might interest your father.”
It clearly did. Dad was running his fingers appreciatively along the metal caps that topped each bottle. The metal was intricately designed and looked like it had been carved out of silver lace. I thought it looked a lot like some of his own creations, only much, much older.
“This is beautiful work,” he told Mrs. Kohling, his voice sounding far away. “I’d be happy to add this to my collection of antique silverwork.”
“Really?” She sounded surprised. “I mean. . . really?”
“Absolutely. How much would you like for these bottles?”
It was the first time Dad had ever said yes to one of Mrs. Kohling’s treasures. I’m not sure she expected it.
“Well. . . I have been looking at this charming pearl necklace over here. . .”
Dad wheeled over to the glass case she was pointing to. “I think that would be a very fair trade,” he told her, smiling.
“Thank you so much, Bryce,” she said. I’d never seen her smile so much in my life. And she kept on smiling when Dad handed her the necklace to try on.
As she was admiring herself in one of the nearby mirrors, Dad wheeled back to the tray and the bottles, then turned to Mike and me.
“Would you mind taking these back to my workshop, Sean?”
I nodded. I lightly punched Mike. He nodded too.
“Thanks,” Dad said, turning back to Mrs. Kohling.
I picked up the tray, which was heavier than I expected, and we made our way out of the store and through the small passageway to the building next door, where we live. Dad’s shop, where he does all of his jewelry work, was a converted garage on the side of our house, with windows looking out on the lake and the dock and, a little farther away, the underwater pearl farm. When we stepped into the shop, I noticed a whippoorwill landing in the grass just outside. “Hey, Mike, there’s — ” I started to say. But I never finished. Because looking at the stupid bird out the window made me miss seeing the new air compressor on the floor. I tripped. And Mrs. Kohling’s tray and glass bottles went flying.
They crashed to the cement floor three feet away, shattering into a billion pieces.
“Nice,” Mike said, grinning at me. “You’re gonna get it now.”
I bent down to start picking up all the broken glass. My heart was pounding hard. “Naw, it’s probably fine. He just wanted it for the silver tops, not the stuff inside.” I really hoped that was true. “This silver still looks okay. It’s only the glass that broke.”
But now there also was a multi-colored puddle on the floor where the contents of the three bottles were all running into each other.
“Is there a broom back here?” Mike asked. I pointed him to the utility closet in the corner. He came back with two brooms and a dustpan, and we started attacking the mess I’d made.
“That’s funny,” I said. I stopped sweeping and looked at the tip of my broom. I was sure I’d run it straight through the colors puddled on the floor. But the broom was dry. And the puddle looked like I hadn’t touched it. I pressed the broom to the floor and slowly ran it through the liquid again. Out came tiny shards of glass and one of the metal tops. But the liquid didn’t smear across the floor like it should have. The broom was still dry. It was like the puddle wasn’t even there. Or like it wasn’t liquid anymore.
“That’s not funny,” Mike said, staring at the broom. “That’s weird.”
The silver that my dad had appreciated so much was still good as new. Or good as “old,” I guess. Mike and I picked up all the pieces from the floor and put them carefully on Dad’s workbench.
There were family pictures tacked to the wall behind it. They were all taken before the accident that put my dad in a wheelchair: my parents’ honeymoon in Mexico, my mom and dad with Dad’s father back when he was still alive, vacation photos from trips we’re probably never going to be able to take ever again.
See, even though we have the pearl farm and the jewelry store and tours and boat rentals and stuff, business isn’t that great. I’ve heard my parents talking about how a business that was built to support my grandpa and grandma is now supporting three of us — and one of us would need money for college someday. We’ve added things to make more money, but I knew money was still really tight. It didn’t help that we had to make a lot of renovations after Dad’s accident, and pay extra medical bills.
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’m really not. Even though my parents stress, I think they’re really happy here. And it’s great to have Mike living so close now. (Well, usually.) Only. . . there was some little glint in Dad’s eyes when he saw Mrs. Kohling’s bottles. And now, seeing those photographs, it was like all of the faces were looking at me, blaming me for being stupid enough to shatter them.
I listened for a minute, trying to tell if Mom or Dad heard me break the bottles. But they were too far away. I’d confess, of course. . . just maybe not in the next half-hour.
“If a broom won’t sweep up that liquid stuff, maybe we should try a sponge,” Mike said.
I got two big sponges from the utility closet and handed one to Mike, then we got down on our hands and knees beside the puddle.
I ran the sponge through the liquid once and looked at it. The sponge was clean and dry. The puddle was still there.
“No way,” I said softly.
Mike tried the same thing.
“That’s kind of cool,” he said.
“Yeah, except for the fact that now there’s a giant puddle on the floor that we can’t get rid of. It might as well be a giant sign that says, ‘Look what Sean did!’”
Mike started to say something when the surface of the puddle shimmered.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“See wha — ?”
I grabbed his shoulder. “Look.”
The puddle was glistening, rippling, like someone had just dropped a stone into the center of it, creating tiny little waves. It wasn’t getting any bigger. It wasn’t spreading. It was just. . . rippling. And now the three colors had completely merged into one another, swirling together into a new color unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Mike was reaching out to touch it.
“Wait!” I told him, pulling his hand back. “We don’t know what that stuff is.”
“Well, I’m guessing Mrs. Kohling’s great-grandmother wasn't storing sulfuric acid in her old trunk,” he said, trying to sound smart. “It was in those bottles for, like, decades and nothing happened.”
“Yeah, but those bottles weren’t made out of skin,” I told him. “And maybe they’re harmless when they’re kept apart. . . but maybe something happens to them when you mix them together. Like nitroglycerine.” It was my turn to sound smart.
He considered that.
“But look at that,” he said, pointing to the shimmering puddle. “Don’t you want to know what that feels like?”
I kind of did.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll both touch it. At the exact same time.”
He nodded. “On three?”
I nodded back.
So there we were, kneeling on the floor of my dad’s workshop, counting from one to three, preparing ourselves to reach out and touch this bizarre puddle of color. And just as we both said “Three!” and put our hands on the floor, I glanced up at the photographs covering the wall behind the workbench and saw my parents looking back at me — young and happy and without a care in the world.
And that’s when everything went white.
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